Interview with Hannah Karpinski

Hannah Karpinski is a queer writer based in Tio’tia:ke/Montreal. Her work has appeared in Bad NudesLemon Hound, and Commo Magazine, among others. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @yer_dog.

Photo credit: Keira Kenny

Hannah Karpinski looks remarkably put-together for someone whose life is changing around them. She gives a disclaimer that she might burst into tears at some point during the interview, but never does. She is an Aries. 

That’s not an official Writing Beyond the Room question, but I just had to ask, since I am impressed that Karpinski, despite the recent heartbreak in her life, is sitting with me out in the cold. She certifies her Concordia student status by suggesting we conduct the interview at Cafe Myriade—the one on Mackay street feels like one of those small coffeeshops fighting the good fight against the Starbucks and Hortons of the world. Both of us say hello to several people we know while in line. This is Karpinski’s first time being interviewed. 

One of Karpinski’s part-time jobs is with Metatron Press, an independent Montreal book publisher founded in 2014. She has a ten-month contract working as a Publishing Assistant for and with press founder Ashley Obscura, a “total powerhouse.” 

HK: Right now we’re in the process of launching a new digital platform, GLYPHÖRIA, which is very exciting because print publication can be limiting in terms of what kind of interdisciplinarity you can bring into it. Maybe you could have a little bit of visual poetry, but for the most part it’s just the printed word, and this new platform is going to open the doors onto sound poetry, video poetry, and interactive poetry. 

Writing’s migration to digital spaces can sometimes feel a little disorienting, or even sad. However, Karpinski is right to point out that it does enable new avenues and the possibility of existence for work that otherwise could not be shared (if that applies to you, click here to submit to GLYPHÖRIA). I ask her if she’s interested in those hybrid forms.

HK: I am. I have an ongoing collaboration with my best friend, Tamar Tabori, whom I met on the first day of high school. We moved to Montreal and lived together for many years. She’s a dancer, and at one point in our relationship we decided to merge our crafts, starting this series called First Drafts. The idea was that I would bring the first draft of a poem to her, read it, and then she would improvise a dance to it. We would do that again and again and again until we could see how we fed off each other, and how my voice might change depending on her body, or her movement might change depending on what I’m speaking, or what I’m emphasizing.   Whenever we see each other, we try to make videos together, and even during the pandemic we created a few long distance. That was a way of staying connected. When we could no longer be in the same physical space, we could still be together on the screen.

Here is a link to one such performance. The artistic collaboration and the mediation of friendship is definitely something many could regard as a time-bomb. Karpinski, however, sees it as a way to strengthen their relationship and experiences it as play.

HK: It’s so exciting getting to play together because it just makes me feel like a kid again. I’m messing around with my friend, we’re coming together over something that is deeply creative and deeply spontaneous as well, and it can go in so many directions. It’s just full of laughter and joy. Even scouting spots is fun, you know? I remember visiting our families in Toronto. We met up, smoked a joint, and walked into a ravine, where we found a tree that had fallen down, which became the site for a First Draft. Moments like that punctuate the day with delight and pleasure and joy, and then we have a recording that is now part of our collective archive that we can look back on and remember who and where we were that day—like tattoos, like poems. 

Karpinski, by virtue of her youth, shares a struggle with me. I bring it up. When you’re young and trying to make it as an artist, there’s a strange tension between wanting to take yourself seriously and wanting others to take you seriously, while also sort of laughing at yourself for the whole dilemma. Joy seems like a good remedy to this paradox.

HK: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s such a good way of putting it too. But at the end of the day, no one really knows what they’re doing! I personally, definitely don’t. And I think it’s boring to know. It’s more exciting to be in that place of wondering and uncertainty—I’m thinking of Keats here, of negative capability. Being in that place of doubts, uncertainties, mysteries, whereas when you have certainty—or you think you have certainty—you preclude the possibility of wonder and curiosity. Unfulfillment and illusion can be generative…I’m obsessed with Keats and Fanny’s love letters, and I think about this line I wrote about their correspondence, that dwelling in unfulfillment keeps desire alive. In the face of all the shit going on in the world, how do we make each other laugh? How do we make ourselves laugh? And how do we not take ourselves so seriously but take what we care about seriously, regardless? I think that’s a fine balance, to take our matters seriously but not ourselves.

We go on a Keats tangent for a bit, and then re-route to Virginia Woolf. She speaks of her love of Orlando, and her experience with A Room of One’s Own. Karpinski started it at the beginning of the pandemic, when she “was totally boxed into [her] own room and when we were all thinking about rooms and spaces and confinement, and what is and isn’t accessible.” She mentions a bad habit of not finishing books, and how in this instance, her bedtime book was greeting her in the morning (on her face). She vows to finish it, particularly after the interview. It will be interesting, she thinks, to see how it reads in the context of changing relationships to space.

Has Karpinski managed to find a room of her own since reading it?

HK: That’s a beautiful question. From the beginning of the pandemic to now, well, I moved in with my partner, into her old apartment. Then we moved into a new space together, which—I love this apartment so much. It’s not a typical Montreal railroad apartment that goes front to back. It’s very much circular. You walk in and there’s a main space, it’s open concept, it’s old and the floors are falling apart and there’s mold under the fridge, but the kitchen is across from the living room, and there’s an island in the middle—and a skylight. And so it enables a different way of relating to space and to each other. You’re constantly touching all of it, there’s no part of the space that isn’t either in view or that you don’t move through every day. It keeps the energies circulating. 

Even though Karpinski’s love for the place pours out from her sentences, she doesn’t actually write in this apartment.

HK: I mostly write on the go. I have scoliosis, so I bought myself a proper desk chair, but I find myself resisting it. I was like, “Amazing! I’m going to write, I’m going to feel good in my body,” and then I’ll write cross legged on the floor in the library. I have this little notebook in my purse that I only allow myself to write lines in for poems, and I bring it with me everywhere. I’ll be squatting on one knee as I’m walking over the mountain and my hands are shaking from the cold…I’ve written a lot of poems on the VIA train, actually. Every time I take the VIA train, I think about Erín Moure and how she worked for VIA for twenty years, which allowed her to write poetry…so the space of the train is a space of poetry for me, and I’ve ended up writing a lot while going back and forth to visit my loved ones.

The sense Karpinski gives off is that of the body as a room, regardless of where one is. Contorting her knees and spine to scribble down a line. It all sounds very corporeal. Is that accurate?

HK: Poetry is totally embodied for me, and I think that’s because a lot of my poems happen outside, in the sense that they’re summer poems, out in the world poems. We’re moving through a space and it’s juicy, and so I think of the room as like, the sky is my ceiling. I’ve inhabited some more precarious spaces and have always found that…well, the way that the mountain changes is reliable, I know that today it’s going to be there, I know when the leaves are changing, I know that I know what I know. You can count on it in a way that internal spaces with others are not similarly predictable. Maybe outside is not exactly reliable either right now—it’s snowing in Vancouver, it was twenty degrees here yesterday—but I find such comfort in being outside because there’s no ceiling on my thoughts.

Karpinski could write from any corner in the world, but who does she write for? With? To?

HK: I write with queer people in mind, I write for queer people. Growing up, I was always looking for myself in books. When you find yourself, when you recognize yourself, it’s just so life affirming, and it opened up the world for me. Over the summer I went to Poland to do semi-structured interviews, both in person and online, with queer people there. My parents immigrated in ’89, and I’m the first one in my family born in Canada, but most of my relatives are in Poland. I was partly there for my research, but partly there from my grandma, who is one of the people who raised me. I don’t feel capital P Polish, but I feel a sense of responsibility as somebody who, I think, in another lifetime could have very easily been born there. I could have been my queer self in a space that is so hostile to queer people. It’s the worst country in the EU for LGBTQ+ rights, for a lot of human rights. It’s devastating and oppressive, and there’s basically a media monopoly in Poland now, too. My babcia’s TV only gets the free public channels, and every channel is the same—it’s all owned by the same company, controlled by the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS).

Googling PiS + media control leads to some terrifying results. There have been unlawful attempts to shut down channels like the US-owned TVN, which have been critical of the current government. As Karpinski points out, one must pay for the privilege of dissent. 

HK: To bring it back to wanting to be recognized in books, in media, and my poetry being deeply hopeful…it’s kind of saccharine but my poetry is about loving. I want to write queer poetry for other queer people in which they can recognize themselves and find some joy and some sort of truth about their experience, and just see themselves, hopefully, as I have felt seen by other queer writers.

More on technology. 

HK: Actually, a lot of Poland’s queer community can be found online. So I posted in Facebook groups and on Reddit forums, and had people responding from small mining towns and all of these places which I never would have been able to reach. A lot of the people who chose to share their stories were minors. Minors on computers who either aren’t out to their families or who are out and are waiting to get out or they can’t get out because they can’t afford to. They don’t know anyone else who is queer in real life or they know one person. In that sense technology has been amazing in creating a bridge between queer spaces that are so—I don’t want to say inaccessible or obfuscated, but diffuse, and in giving me the ability to reach them as a person moving around in the world.

It’s very cold. Hannah Karpinski and I are both trembling, somewhat. For the past half hour I have been clutching my mug of ginger tea like it has all the answers in the world. I pull out my coffee thermos, and also my water bottle, and Karpinski is nice about the balancing act I’m doing with all these beverages. We have a human moment.

HK: Right now I’m sitting here at a very difficult emotional moment of loss, and also, it’s cold. But I know that the poems I’m writing now are so tactile and hot, and I know that I’ll return to them and be transported to this space where I’m alive in my body in a way that brings me pleasure and activates my spirit.

We have another kind of human moment. We discuss money.

HK: Well, I’m very lucky because I’m SSHRC funded [Social Science and Humanities Research Council], so that is a huge weight lifted off my shoulders this year. It definitely gives me more time to write without the acute anxiety of like, “Oh I have to pay for my apartment and my bills and also do six assignments and write my thesis”… I’m also very lucky because I have two-part time jobs that I actually enjoy. My restaurant job gives me health care, which is so rare. Yeah, I’m just lucky all around. But being a writer in general is an incredibly precarious position when you have to rely on government funding like Canada Council, or apply for grants that you and twenty of your friends and fifty of your classmates are competing for. There’s only so much funding to go around and it’s unsustainable. Also, writers are incredibly undervalued in terms of how much time and effort it takes to produce work for the market, like writing a grant application or even a bio for somebody. Right now I have my SSHRC, but next year, what? Who knows? I better start applying for new grants right now. I have friends who have salaries and I don’t think I will ever have a salary, which is a scary reality to face.

Speaking of scary realities, we turn to political activism and its relationship to writing.

HK: This makes me think about Solmaz Sharif. At her virtual launch for Customs in March, she recognized that to be a poet or to be an educator is to be in service of the state, whether you want to or not. Whether you think you are or not. In some ways it’s true, right, especially when I think about the university, and how we inhabit this space, studying something like creative writing. People are going into lifelong debt to be a part of this institution, which, at the same time, is also chewing up and spitting out its teachers. I think it’s impossible to conceive of poetry beyond that relationship of upholding, in my case, the university. I’m thinking about it in the shadow of the library building, next to this old brutalist structure towering over us. But I also think that writing does open up the space of critique of the systems that prevent us from thriving. The most engaged poetry has a relationship between internal and external, where analysis of systems is filtered through a person’s subjectivity and singularity.

It’s time for our last question. Are we, in fact, in a post-patriarchal literary landscape?

HK: No. I think that’s embedded in, for example, syllabi, which are getting better and better—depending on the professors—but no. I think about the people in positions of power, like CEOs of publishing companies and the prizes that are being awarded…but then again I do think that now is a better time than ever. We talked about the prize landscape this year, like Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch’s Grand Prix win for The Good Arabs, and Avery Lake’s Horrible Dance, which is up for a Governor General’s. In terms of literary political representation, I think there are more and more trans writers getting published, more women writers, queer writers, more writers of color. Little by little that is happening. When I read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House—oh my god, it just exploded my life. It is the first of its kind, right, it’s this brilliant hybrid memoir, so difficult to read, and it’s really affecting to be pulled into that downward spiral of gaslighting and queer-on-queer abuse. It was also incredibly reassuring and liberating to be able to read that experience, which so many of us can identify with, and to know that this is a new book in the world and that there are more coming. It gives me a lot of hope.

At this point, I ask Hannah Karpinski what her sign is.

Interview with Sallie Fullerton

Sallie Fullerton is the recipient of a Fulbright Study/Research grant in Creative Writing, which has led them to develop their project in Montreal. It involves documentary poetry, focusing on the shifting lesbian scene in the city through the decades. They received an MFA Poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2021. Their poems have been published in several online publications, including Frontier Poetry, Vagabond City Lit, and Slanted House Collective.

It’s my third time meeting Sallie Fullerton. It’s my first time meeting them without anyone else there. Facing the Second Cup Coffee menu, I somewhat peer-pressure them into getting a dirty chai with me. We’re steps away form Concordia’s Loyola Campus, where we will head after the interview for the Feminist Media Studio open house. This is one of the several labs Fullerton is associated with during their stay in Montreal.

The interview starts with me learning something new. Apparently Stevia is natural, as opposed to the two Splenda packets I’ve ripped apart on top my latte, like a sacrifice. In a bit, Fullerton will tell me about how they work as a barista at times, and I will realize none of my choices in that coffeeshop so far must have been read as neutral. It’s hard to feel judged by Sallie Fullerton, due to a very considerate disposition, but it’s also easy to pick up on that fact that they could put that consideration to use and write a devastating poem. It’s intimidating in the way the poets you trust to be poets are.

I ask them if they’ve read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

SF: A teacher in high school gave me a copy. I never gave it back, I don’t know if I was supposed to. But I read it in high school and not since then… I think I was excited for reading something that felt really grown up, maybe. I don’t remember detailed impressions but I think I remember being excited by it, whether or not that’s because it was a gift, or because I felt, like, important that a teacher gave me something, or because it was the subject, I don’t know. But I do love Virginia Woolf, I found out later.

Turns out their favorite Woolf book is Mrs. Dalloway. We stray from the interview questions a bit, discussing Woolf as a whole. Namely, the toughness it can ask from its reader. Fullerton clarifies that they find Woolf brilliant, and the cult of personality intriguing, but a windy one-page sentence can be dense to get through, and actually get.

SF: I love the modernist writers but I assume it’s its own kind of weird rabbit hole you can go into, and you start reading Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf, and you do need to be feel strong enough to do it. You can’t like– it’s not casual. These books need a class or a professor behind them or someone to light the fire under you a bit.

It’s the second time Fullerton has brought up a teacher or a professor in our conversation, so I move up my question about mentorship.

SF: I lean heavily on it. Almost– to the point where I sometimes have trouble writing outside of writing community, or outside of an institution, outside of proximity to other writers or, like, being kind of seen. It’s unfortunate but I think that I do have trouble existing alone in writing, you know. In some ways that’s really good because it’s nice to have a communal writing project or practice, but it doesn’t feel like a real artist artist, the one that’s, like, alone in their head and kind of crazy and ripping their hair out, writing all night. I don’t have that. I think my mentors have been hugely important and the only reason I did this is, keep writing poetry I mean, is because of a string of one person to another that encouraged me to do it. If just at any point that string was broken, I don’t know that I would have.

We turn our attention to non-academic writing communities. Fullerton shares that even inside academia, when they taught creative writing, it seemed that students took those courses seeking a space that allowed them to step out of their scholarship and their lives, and into a more direct relationship with their writing and other people. I point out that even then at the end of the term there is a grade, and throughout, the idea of an instructor among the group is very much felt.

SF: I’m actually just remembering that that’s how I got into it. In college I wasn’t a creative writing major. I think I tried to be one and my thesis got rejected because I got a B in a class and also I was trying some crazy thesis that was like, I made a handmade book and they were not OK with it. So I wasn’t a creative writing major, I only took about two or three creative writing classes in all of undergrad, But I did meet with this group, I think was called Writers Block, and it was like student-run. You’d meet terribly hungover, it was like on a Sunday morning, so you know. And then you just kind of sit into a self-directed– we’d all just write together in a room and then share and that was that. Sometimes there were problems but sometimes it was totally just… we’re just all safe together writing, and then whoever wants to can say what they just wrote, and it was all different genres, it wasn’t genre-specific, and that was my writing practice. I don’t even know how I ended up there. I don’t think I even had friends that were doing it.

For a while we reflect on how nice it can be to share and not be workshopped, to have writing “just kind of be.” In a way, to not invite anyone to have the power of opinion over it. This, of course, leads us to power imbalances in writing communities.

SF: I’ve definitely been in workshops in grad school that I’ve felt like super weird in. There’s a professor that will go in with a set of things that they like and a very specific style of writing that works for them and then kind of put that onto the class… and they’re really bad at hiding their favorites, so you just end up feeling like you’re in a room full of people just trying to get this professor to say one nice thing. Everyone’s writing is shifting towards… this felt like something that would definitely homogenize an entire classroom, right, to all have the same voice and same style. And because you start to feel– I was one that he did not like, he definitely didn’t like my style. I remember kind of going insane thinking “how do I get him to like anything I like?” Not that I have to write for someone but at a certain point just feels brutal to go in all the time and have your stuff ripped apart, so I was like ‘OK so this one I’m really gonna try and have it not be ripped apart’ and then, not even kind of realizing it, I’m writing for one specific person in a style I don’t even really like…because I just didn’t want to leave crestfallen, I just wanted to feel good. That was a bummer.

We arrive to what I think of as the meat of the interview. I ask Sallie Fullerton if they have a room of their own.

SF: OK, I have tons of rooms for the first time. I’m living in my own apartment and it’s a big apartment; it’s got a front room, a little tiny bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and then you can go back through. It’s five rooms I can just move from, and of course I stay in one of the rooms all the time. I could keep moving around and theoretically each room is for a different state and then you can move through space in a way that structures your time, but that’s very… with wonderful poetry, you have a good desk room which is never where it’s gonna happen. The people I’m renting from thought ‘oh you’re coming here to study, you need a desk.’ I’m like, poetry is gonna happen in the windowless kitchen. The worst room of the bunch, really, is kind of where I’ve camped out to do all my stuff… I could be given this huge beautiful mansion and I will find the small, tiny airless closet that will feel good.

I simply have to ask why.

SF: I don’t know. I think it’s not very distracting. Maybe it’s cozy. I like being contained. My last place, I was sharing a very small apartment with my partner. I didn’t really have a room, I had a desk that just facing a wall in the corner of our living room and I wrote nothing there at all. Because it was too public. So I think you just kind of end up somewhere and then you can’t– it’s like when you sit in your seat on the first day of class, you know, and then you keep sitting there. I sat down in the kitchen and felt better and so I stayed there.

Fullerton’s current work has to do with a documentary poetry project centering on the lesbian social scene in Montreal. They state it being so community specific is somewhat unusual for them, often producing insular work. Using oral histories and archives, Fullerton’s research spans the last five or more decades. They describe it as a collage. From different passages and interview, they pick out parts to weave together into a narrative that evokes a more immediate sense of lived experience. They list ethical considerations on writing with many voices, such as fabrication or decontextualization. I hear them speak, and I’m struck by how much it reminds me of Sina Queyras’ objective with Writing Beyond The Room. I do my best to articulate this to Sallie Fullerton, and we have a “delightfully vague” aside about digging into the past and communicating about it as Frankenstein-like reconstruction. They bring up a good point about documentary poetry.

SF: It’s all constructed history…I think documentary poetry is interested in not pretending like this isn’t a construction. Even a photograph is framed. It’s not– you’re not in a total 360 degrees experience.

Which is something to think about, particularly when you write about encounters with people. We talk about bars next.

SF: They are really important historically, in the struggle to meet safely…I mean, a lot of organizing happened in bars… It’s very linked to any of the political and social projects of lesbian, in this case, or queer community, especially at the time I’m mostly writing about. The 70s or 80s but even I think, now. Bars are usually first adopted as the main space because it’s easy to run them in a looser way, and people can make a community space. Really, you can kind of fill in whatever you want after “bar”, but it makes it a little more fun.

Fullerton informs me of the devastating news that there are no official lesbian bars in Montreal. Their project’s importance seems to have an amplified magnitude.

SF: I think there’s a lot of work being done with lesbian bars right now, in gay bars, for that reason, because they’re disappearing across North America. This is not a Montreal specific turn. Almost every city gets a rapid decline in gated spaces and I think that there’s a really good bunch of reasons, not all of them even bad, but still I think it’s important to try and keep something tapped in of what– of what allowed this kind of more loosely affiliated queer socializing that we see now, that’s like pop-ups and all these things that are maybe less constructed… It was just that one room and now we have a way of life that flows a little more freely and sometimes that’s frustrating, too. You really do want that room, you really wanna go back into, you know, that dark little kitchen. But in another way it’s nice to be able to walk outside.

Eventually, I have to ask the poet how they make a living.

SF: Money helps, definitely, because I need to live. Usually the way I’ve supported myself it’s been either being a part of institution; my MFA was funded so I didn’t have to pay for it, and they paid me and I’d be teaching during that time. Or the year after that I continue teaching or I’m a barista. It’s either– I want a job that’s totally linked to poetry, very involved in my own practice, or something that has nothing to do with it. You can totally leave it at the door, it will not impede on my thoughts too much working as a barista, as opposed to working in a nonprofit, like a desk job nine-to-five…Right now I’m on a full break. Fulbright is this U,S. government grant. They support you for nine months while you do your research and they’re really very hands off about it. So no one’s really watching me. They don’t give you a ton of money and they they give the same amount of money to wherever you go, so it doesn’t go as far in Canada as it might somewhere else. It’s livable and I’ve been able to live alone here, which is… I mean, I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again. Probably not. Anyway. I think that’s been kind of huge, getting supported in a way that I get to live alone and not be constantly working…when I do work I like when it’s something that’s pretty separate from writing unless it’s teaching. I like teaching because that feels like yours, it helps rather than hinders. Expands on things. Best of all is to be on the ground. The one downside of a grant like this is I can’t work. I don’t have a work permit, only for this specific thing. So I usually would prefer to have some kind of other thing to be occupied, ideally just a few days a week at a coffee shop, but I can’t. There’s nowhere to turn besides your research and your writing… I think I just contradicted myself saying the best of all is not to work but really it’s– there’s a certain point when free time becomes a problem.

The rest of our conversation is political. We start on the topic of how all writing is.

SF: Writing is communication. Writing is needed to disseminate information that you communicate across large numbers, so in that way it’s one of the most basic possible means of organizing… I also think that we talk about documentary poetry, that genre, as fundamentally an activist political genre. It’s intended to elevate or draw attention to often marginalized voices, so in that way writing allows you to take information and get it around and that feels very political and intentional… I mean, obviously there’s some poetry that’s more overtly political or activist-based. Especially the trend of the most popular approach books right now are taking, that focus on a particular issue or are made with some important, deeper message in mind. It always is, but there it’s coming closer and closer to the surface. It feels like that it would have been maybe like– you know Sylvia Plath, you have to dig a little bit…

Sallie Fullerton has two more of my existential questions to untangle. When I ask them if they think they have intellectual freedom, they pause for a while, which I appreciate.

SF: I immediately wanted to say ‘of course’ but then that feels like a question you have to think about. I think when I was proposing this project I felt limited in how I had to set it up because it is a U.S. state department funded program. So, I mean, talk about writing as political. It’s like a diplomacy project that they’re trying to further their political agenda in different countries in certain ways or at least signal that they’re interested in certain things, or I don’t know, but I did feel a little bit trapped trying to figure out a way to describe this project that would appeal to the U.S. state department. Which is a position I never want to be in again… I felt, like, dirty. That didn’t feel very free. Now that I’m here and they’ve stopped looking, I do. We’ll see in nine months when they pop their heads back in…My partner is doing this project on censorship and writing in Romania, so I’m hearing a lot about dictator censorship. Comparatively, very free. I don’t know. Do you feel that way?

Even though the whole interview has felt like a conversation, this moment sticks out to me as the prime example of it. I disclose my thoughts on my own intellectual freedom. Mainly, about how I’m not particularly interested in writing things that are easy to swallow, so I don’t, perhaps to my detriment. Fullerton sympathizes, sharing how it felt to write overtly queer poetry in workshops.

SF: I think I do best when I can work with other queer authors or queer readers. I would write these things and either people would think it was so crazy and zany or gross… to be fair I did use intense, visceral language… or they would just be so totally lost. It was like mind-boggling to me, like ‘wow, no one no one picked up on that’. So I wasn’t told I couldn’t write about these things, but sometimes it was that kind of thing…You’re just looking for your readers. I remember a professor saying that the real purpose of this program is to find one or two people that you like and you respect and who are aligned with your work, and then have lifelong readers. One or two people that the rest of your life you can send work to and get feedback from, and that makes sense to me. Honest review for grad school. I think I got even more than one or two, so I was lucky.

On the topic of queerness and gender, I throw my final question at Sallie Fullerton. Are we in a post-patriarchal literary landscape?

SF: Jeez Louise.

PO’F: I know, I’m sorry.

SF: I think we’re still in a pretty decently gendered literary landscape. I see it most clearly marked in book reviews, in the kind of coded language which can feel at times dismissive. Like calling certain writers like ‘overly confessional,’ you know, the classic critique of the confessional female poet, is still around I think. Now we just say it’s ‘too Tumblr’ or something like that. Maybe that’s what they mean. It’s the same as people critiquing Sylvia Plath for writing about her internal landscape, maybe a little more heavily coated. You have to like dig a little bit more but I think it’s still there, just dismissing certain writing as less important, using a subscript of words that feel gendered and sad.

Our dirty chais long gone, five minutes after 1 PM, Sallie Fullerton and I stand up, and head to the Feminist Media Studio, where we drink even coffee and talk some more about rooms, books, community, and quite importantly, approaches.

Interview with Paloma Dawkins

Paloma Dawkins is the co-founder of Apocablyss Studios, behind games such as Oceanarium (beta), Songs of the Lost, Museum of Symmetry, Palmystery, Alea, and Gardenarium. Dawkins’ games are praised for being digital spaces that celebrate natural life and rhythms. The worlds and spaces she creates in her games incite creative thinking and wonder, and help expand the medium in a time of great innovation. Dawkins won awards at the Canadian Screen Academy Awards, Fantasia, FIVARS, Cinekid, NUMIX, and North Bend Festival, and exhibited at Festivals, Museums and Galleries around the world including Siggraph, MIF, V&A, MAAM, LikeLike, Garage Museum, Babycastles, and many more.

Find her @mysssterious999 or @apocablyss.

After Paloma Dawkins and I say hello to each other at the Plateau’s Cafe Myriade, she tells me about the nice coat she’s put on for our meeting and about how that morning she got up at 4AM, unwillingly. She is immediately warm and reassuring to be around. We wait for our respective oat milk lattes as Dawkins tells me about her post-interview plans to go visit the Insectarium, and I wonder if most people who own a video game company are this chill.

Dawkins handles the code and visuals, while co-founder Ashley Opheim takes care of the writing. On their symbiotic relationship, Dawkins says, “She’s a Capricorn and I’m a Cancer, so we’re in the very opposites of the spectrum, it’s perfect…I’m almost just trying to impress Ashley and Ashley is trying to understand me.” They had called that very morning, and Dawkins expresses gratitude for the way their interpretations inspires the other. It’s interesting for me to undertake this interview for Writing Beyond The Room with Dawkins rather than the person who wrote the poems featured in their latest game, but it feels appropriate. Our conversation’s objective is to explore the idea of a virtual room, and to examine the power behind the ability to build it. Hearing Dawkins speak convinces me code is its own kind of writing, and it is the intent behind this writing that really structures the spaces people inhabit online.

For one, Dawkins begins by stressing that spirituality is the answer. This is not what many, myself included, expect from someone in the tech sector. But we met at a tarot deck launch, so maybe I should have known better. Dawkins tells me about a conversation she had with a friend the previous night, on how spirituality, or maybe something more akin to faith, was relinquished in favor of a new alternative reality. She brings up The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace by Margaret Wertheim.

PD: Yeah, it’s really cool. She argues that church was a spiritual space that kind of, like– organized religion was a place for us to experiment with a different version of ourselves. Like a spiritual realm. And then she argues that now we use the Internet to do that. The Internet is the only place that we have to explore our spiritual selves.

Our conversation gets even more spiritual. Dawkins explains that the studio’s name, Apocablyss, is no coincidence. That the apocalypse isn’t a sudden event, but that it’s happening right now, slowly. A mundane thing. Dawkins echoes the Jungian idea that we are born with all the information we need to die, and so as a species, we have an apocalyptic vision in us. It is tech companies, with an insatiable drive for development and a tendency to burn out, that are unconsciously manifesting this, Dawkins says.

PD: What if we, like, had a great experience while we were building technology, you know? Then we would be creating blessed technologies. We’re basically creating spaces for people to go and explore this new version of themselves. Instagram is your avatar, it’s kind of like your spiritual counterpart in a way, right, but we just don’t have faith in that reality. Imagine if it was like… like, I love DND [Dungeons & Dragons]. It’s so cool. Imagine it’s like that’s how we treated our social media. It’d be so nice, we’re questing out there in the digital space to beat this, you know, instead of it being like ‘oh, I just do this for likes, now I’ll show my house for comments.” Couldn’t it be good deeds? I don’t know, could be anything. But yeah, I just want to see a reality where we believe a little bit more that our technology could be good for us.

Dawkins makes games that advocate for the ludic exploration of the self. It’s both profound and light, spiritual and impressively down-to-earth. Most importantly, it’s an alternative to the narratives we have been presented on the virtual composition of spaces and personas. On the website, Apocablyss’ products are described as “transmedia, meditative, and transformative.” I ask for an example, and how, exactly one can build such a place.

` PD: We wanted to create a space that made you feel refreshed after, and so the way that we did that is we wanted you to experience all of your emotions. This took us years. Basically, we just wanted to wash you with colors and poetry that was designed to make you feel a certain way. And so the first level we wanted you to feel scared. The color was red…you kind of walked around really scared because we thought it’s scary to be in VR for the first time…. and then you get over your fear and, look, the poetry is like stepping over your fear. And then the next level is like OK, now you’re out of your fear now, it’s kind of chaotic, you know, it’s yellow. There’s character that’s like just like going off, on, off, saying random stuff but it’s kind of cool because Ashley’s poetry is amazing. You’re getting diamonds and stuff, and so, cool, you’ve gotten into that chaotic but fun, interesting realm. And then you go into the green and green is a little bit more- it’s a little bit more like reality. And so we explored how you got in trouble and then you got out of the trouble and then you were made to help some people. This is the longest area because green is the color we see the most…green can make it through the atmosphere like way better than any other color and so our eyes everything is made out of more green than anything else…so we got to explore, what does that mean in the story? You’re watering flowers and then this character kindly tells you to stop. Stop watering the flowers. We wanted the player to have the sense of empowerment to do what they wanted to do. Subvert the expectations at this time. By doing that you didn’t make this other character happy, but you did what you had to do. We’re trying to make people think for themselves. That’s something I love doing in my games. Don’t do it because you’re being told to do it cause it’s almost always gonna be wrong…Then we kind of like put the character in the ocean. Like a washing experience, like you’re gonna be reborn…there’s this amazing poem for the end and it’s just like it’s such a crazy moment. If you go through the whole experience it just feels like such a release at this moment, you know…I’ve seen some people really like respond strongly to it and I think that’s kind of a success for us. It was our first time trying really meticulous storytelling with the space and the emotions and shapes and the sounds, all of these things combined. We wanted to make sure the sound went with the frequency of the color that it was, you know, like yellow has a frequency, right?

I nod, like I know all about yellow’s frequency. I’m taken aback by the level of attention to the crafting of each digital space in Gardenarium. The notion of player empowerment also sticks out to me. As a creator of these places, of the design and rules of the game, Dawkins is not interested in constraining or defining the player. Her earlier words on self-discovery ring truer. It’s built into these rooms’ code.

These rooms are also strikingly natural, for a video game. There’s the ocean, the importance of green. My chat with Paloma Dawkins, in a similar fashion, keeps coming back to her admiration for nature.

PD: Technology reflects natural patterns completely. Like the way that a flower grows. There’s so much we can be inspired by…because it’s so elegant so simple and it’s so strong…so satisfying look at. Yeah, that’s that’s what I want to bring into my games. That satisfaction of seeing stuff bloom.

I then learn about Wampum, all the while being reminded of the night I met Dawkins a week earlier, digital flowers being watered on the wall to our right. That was the night of the tarot deck launch. Amidst all this talk of abstract spaces, I ask Dawkins about the tangible products Apocablyss makes.

PD: There’s a limitation to like what I can do online and it’s not very satisfying for me to only do things online. Community is such an important part of the whole equation for me, and so I really want to bridge that gap between digital space and real space.

I ask what that looks like.

Dawkins mentions her love of events, and that’s how we get to the start of her career.

PD: My friends would throw raves and then I’d be like ‘hey can I like make a dumb game and like put it in the corner’ and then I would watch drunk people playing my games and it was really good feedback. They’d be like ‘woo!’ or ‘I don’t know where to go’…It’s really fun, it was just the best way to do it because I’m working with my friends to make the game and it’s just such a better process. Sometimes now I’m at home, slogging away by myself. I miss that time. I need human feedback in order to do this. I’m not existing in a vacuum, you know, like some games designers think that they can. I don’t know, I guess they like that. I can’t.

Human feedback takes us to mentorship, a topic Dawkins has already alluded to.

PD: I wouldn’t be able to do anything I’m doing without mentorship. Especially being a woman, I got a lot of support from people just being like ‘Oh my God, yeah, you got it.’ It’s helpful but then as I progressed I needed heavier and heavier help because I didn’t go to school for anything. That’s a huge part of the problem. I mean, I didn’t have the right credits to go to like, the right school to learn. Because I was like- I always thought I was… I was girl from the 90s or whatever, you know, they were like ‘oh girls aren’t good enough’ or I don’t know what it was, maybe just me stuck in that, but I didn’t have the credits… So I had to do it on my own. It was probably better because then I got really tailored help. The first thing I did was something called the Artsy Games Incubator at the Hand Eye Society in Toronto, like a six week course, intensive. Every week we would just meet up with out piece, kind of like build on it, and that was really cool because I had animation experience but not game experience. It’s really good transitioning. Then after I finished that one take some time with NSP; that felt like an internship to me, honestly. Then after that to start my own company, it’s a whole other can of worms. You need specific training for that and I’m so grateful Dames Making Games helped me with that part. They have this social impact investment readiness course and they select some women and LGBTQ folks and every minority in the game industry to prepare them… That was really cool and they helped me open my company, like the LLC. They got me a lawyer, they got me an accountant, all these things. It just goes show how much gatekeeping there is because that’s such specific knowledge. It’s not something you can just casually share, you know, it’s like– some guys are just raised with that…The rest of us just don’t even know how it’s actually quite simple, you just have to have the savvy, you just have to have that confidence, you have to know the terminology. The same goes for coding…as long as you have the help, if you have the energy, the eagerness, you could do anything.

We talk about support in the industry, and the big factor money is. Dawkins shares an anecdote with me. Living in Montreal, paying around two hundred a month for rent, “[e]ating…I don’t even know what I was eating,” she posted a listing on Bunz. A comic for a meal. The post blew up.

PD: It was really fun. I went around town with a bag of comics and just got meals all day. People would pack a little meal, all these really interesting folks, and I kind of missed those times. I would get into these really creative ways of making money and that’s around the time when I started doing games at like festivals and raves…I feel like that was a huge part of my process to get to where I am.

She shares her excitement at being paid 750 CAD for her first comic, and over time, seeing it grow for a thousand a game, two thousand, four thousand, twenty thousand. I bring up a link I noticed on Apocablyss’ page, one leading to the entirety of her games on for free. She nods fervently.

PD: I want my games to be free. It feels like they should be free.

Dawkins is only back in Montreal for a couple of days, before heading back to her home in Nova Scotia. I ask her the million dollar question: if she has a room of her own. She does. It’s full of Tatami mats. She lists the things the can do in them: sleep, stretch, yoga, get cozy, watch a movie, have tea. She tells me she loves being in this room, and I believe her. She attributes it to the texture of the mats. I tell her, that it sounds like the sort of meditative space she’s creating for others in her games. She agrees with a smile.

PD: Our environment really inspires who we become. That’s something in nature. If there’s this kind of plant, then the creatures around are gonna be eating them, right, like they’re gonna be evolving with that plant in mind. So if I have a chill room with Tatami mats, I’m gonna become a chill, close to the ground person.

I am curious about the video game industry as an environment, and a space for a woman to move in. I ask Dawkins about any power dynamics or situations she may have encountered. She comes up blank.

PD: I guess I’m a little oblivious sometimes. Others will say ‘oh, that person was doing this’ or whatever, and I’m like ‘oh really, I didn’t notice.’ I guess I’m kind of naive. I expect the best of people but I think that works in my advantage, honestly, because most people wanna be their best. If I don’t give them a chance to be a terrible, cringy person, then they won’t. That’s my hope anyway. It just hasn’t really happened to me…I think I’ve just been really lucky to been working with the NFB [National Film Board of Canada], they’re mostly like asking me about the VR world, you know, but that’s good…I think I’m going to come into maybe some more of those spaces now that I’m on my own and trying to get in the door a bit. So I might have to do some, like, weird hoops and get some weird power dynamics but I don’t know, I feel pretty confident about myself.

What about confidence in the space itself? I ask Dawkins if she’d consider us to be in a post—patriarchal media landscape.

PD: Yeah, that’s cool. Yeah, post patriarchal, let’s go, let’s go. I’m all about it. I do believe that, yeah. I feel like it’s not working anymore, you know, that like… hyperfocused, masculine, nine to five, we need all hands on deck for this… I don’t think it’s gonna become like matriarchy but I think that we can abolish that entire idea altogether, that whole gender binary. We’re just here for humanity, we’re here for creatures, we’re here for plants, we’re here for all the players. Fuck gender because it doesn’t matter, right, we’re inter species. I feel like you can’t expect your people to be kind to each other if they can’t even be kind to animals, they can’t even be kind to their computers. We need to be kind to everything, all otherness, period.

I thank Dawkins for her time and end the recording before she says the rawest thing I have heard all week. I scribble it down furiously.

PD: Defining a space is so anti-nature. What is indoors versus outdoors? We’re in nature all the time. A digital space is nature.

Interview Sina Queyras and Poonam Dhir

“I WANT A WAY OUT, I WANT TO BUILD A NEW WORLD, I WANT A ROADMAP”: This month’s Puritan features a conversation between Rooms Researcher, Sina Queyras & Concordia student, Poonam Dhir! You’ll find an excerpt below. For the full interview check out:

PD: You wrote “Anger may not snatch my pen but it guides it daily. It raises my heart rate and the speed of my fingers on the keyboard.” Can you expand on the role of anger in your writing? And in other areas, if you’d like.

SQ: There’s that great Stevie Smith line about anger’s freeing power. She also famously wrote: “I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning.” I always keep those lines side-by-side. Anger is still frowned upon, yes, we don’t like it too directly, we don’t like it at dinner parties, we don’t like it in the classroom, we definitely don’t love it in art. People often describe angry art as immature art. Undeveloped art. So, as an artist, you have to manage it, the challenge is to harness one’s anger; to ride it, not tamp it down too much, but also to express it in a way that doesn’t cost the person expressing it—me in my case—or the reader receiving it, too much. I don’t think I have been consistent at this; it is something I learned with Lemon Hound (both the book and blog). How to manage anger, how to make it, if not beautiful, at least something that I could enjoy. And I think that’s why satire is so compelling. I am not a great satirist. I wish I were a better one because it is empowering to be able to laugh at the things you are angry about. I do find that I get motivated by anger more than by beauty. And I don’t love that about myself. On the other hand, I love that I will respond when I’m angry, rather than shutting down, or being silent. I’m glad that I take those risks. I would rather take the risk of offending than not saying anything at all.

Jessi MacEachern

In partnership with Writers Read Concordia, “COVID Writing Rooms” highlights the writing spaces and practices of artists during the early days of the pandemic.

Q: How does your current set-up differ from pre-Covid?

A: This space is now the single location from which I write, teach, and socialize. As a result, the wider world into which I wish to write can feel out of reach.

Q: How has this space shaped your writing routine and ritual?

A: When I am sitting at this desk, to my right and within immediate

reach is my bookshelf of poetry, so that I am accompanied by other voices (H.D., Lorine Liedecker, Mina Loy, Daphne Marlatt, Erín Moure, Lisa Robertson) as I begin a new line, revise a suite of poems, or copyedit a forthcoming manuscript.

Q: What are you missing?

A: I am missing the city’s elsewheres; a special sort of inspiration lifts exclusively from busy cafés or friends’ couches.

Q: How are you finding joy in the current moment?

A: Surprisingly, or not, dystopian fiction! N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, and Doris Lessing’s five-volume Canopus in Argos: Archives. I just began the first book of Lessing’s “space fiction” yesterday!

Cason Sharpe

In partnership with Writers Read Concordia, “COVID Writing Rooms” highlights the writing spaces and practices of artists during the early days of the pandemic.

Q: How does your current set-up differ from pre-Covid?

A: I recently moved, so my living/writing situation has changed in a way that loosely maps onto the pandemic’s waves. When the first lockdown was announced back in March, I lived with roommates. Now I live alone. My current set-up differs from a pre-Covid set-up in that my pre-Covid set-up was better suited to long stretches of time spent outside the house.

Q: How has this space shaped your writing routine and ritual?

A: I haven’t lived or worked in this space for very long, so it remains to be seen. Having the time and space to write has been a goal of mine for years, and it’s bittersweet, (and, if I’m being honest, a bit icky feeling) to have reached that goal in the context of the pandemic. You know what they say: be careful what you wish for.

Q: What are you missing?

A: I miss the unexpected. Chance encounters, a meandering afternoon hangout that somehow turns into dinner, drinks, and then a night out. I know all those things will resume in time, so I’m leaning into the stability of a routine for now.

Q: How are you finding joy in the current moment?A: I take solace in small indulgences: reading in the bath; spending hours crafting the perfect playlist; The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. A sustained writing practice relies on a delicate balance of finding joy with others and finding joy alone, so writers might be uniquely positioned to adapt to the current moment.